Evening Echo Opinion: When it comes to election promises, listen to Phillo – Don’t believe a word

Phillo.jpg“Don’t believe a word

For words are only spoken

Your heart is like a promise

Made to be broken.

So sang Philip Parris Lynott, dead these last thirty years. He’d have been 66 now. I can imagine Phillo, older, maybe wiser, advising us as the 2016 General Election kicks off: “Don’t believe a word. Not a word of this is true.”

Cynic that I am, I’d be inclined to agree. Personally, I feel you’ll have no-one but yourself to blame if you believe a word out of any politician’s mouth between here and Friday the 26th of February.

The competing pitches will likely be “Stability versus chaos” and “A fairer recovery”. In other words, “We made the tough decisions but if you re-elect us we won’t do it again” versus “No, vote for us, we have easy answers”.

Between here and polling day, you will be inundated with promises. Promises are the life blood of election campaigns and they’ll fill the airwaves and eat up all the – sigh – fiscal space too.

Promises are made, the saying goes, to be broken, but they have a horrible habit of coming back to haunt those who make them. In the dying days of the last election, the Labour Party – panicked at the prospect of a Fine Gael over-all majority – released their “Every Little Hurts” poster. A play on the Tesco advert, it listed the worst excesses likely to be enacted by Fine Gael unless Labour was in coalition to restrain the harshest of the Blueshirts’ Tory, pauper-culling instincts.

Every little hurtsSure enough, just like Fianna Fáil’s infamous 1987 “Health cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped” poster – health cuts Fianna Fáil in government later introduced – Labour in coalition became part of the government which enacted every one of the cuts Labour had predicted an unrestrained Fine Gael would carry out. Promises, promises.

It could be argued the “Tesco ad” worked; certainly Fine Gael was denied an over-all majority. Former Labour leader and one-time putative candidate for Taoiseach, Eamon Gilmore said recently he had paid “very little attention” to the advert, something for which he said he had paid “a very high price later”.

Still, as Gilmore’s fellow former Labour leader, Pat Rabbitte, said, “Isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”

Of course, what tends to be forgotten or ignored about Rabbitte’s remark is that it was made in the context of a “The Week In Politics” debate about Labour not adding a “Terms and Conditions Apply” clause to their promises (specifically stating that all political pledges are subject to the prevailing economic climate). “You didn’t go into all that detail before the election, you kept it simple,” accused RTÉ’s Seán O’Rourke, which was met with the “Isn’t that what you tend to do–?” reply.

No matter, the damage was done and – online at least – Rabbitte’s comment has stuck to Labour’s neck like Coleridge’s albatross. Then again, you could fill the GPO in 1916 with people on Twitter pretending to be disaffected former Labour voters who wouldn’t be fans of Sinn Féin themselves but who’ll be giving the Shinners a grudging vote this time out.

Although the Taoiseach launched this election on Twitter, it remains to be seen how much – or how little – social media will actually affect it. Perhaps the more sedate Facebook will be where online difference (if any) is made, as friends or at least acquaintances have polite discussions or even respectful arguments, while Twitter continues its downward spiral into personal abuse and – ultimately – irrelevance.

As usual, it’ll be on the doorsteps and airwaves that candidates will have the most impact and it’ll be there the promises will come thick, fast and made to be broken.

Mind you, as Irish Examiner columnist Michael Clifford points out, while broken promises can be bad for political parties, sometimes kept promises (like Fianna Fáil’s 1977 giveaway manifesto) can be disastrous for the country.

So, then, promises you’ll likely hear between now and the 26th. Fix the HSE? Free GP care (again)? Tax cuts? End the USC? A living wage? Fix childcare? End homelessness? #RepealThe8th? Hold back the floods?

No coalition with this crowd, that shower or the other?

Forget it. For all the promises, all the slogans and all the guff you’ll hear between now and the election, only two words matter: “79 seats”.

Since the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2011 reduced the number of TDs to 158 – and taking the Ceann Comhairle out of the equation – 79 seats is the number needed for a majority.

The barrister and pundit Noel Whelan recalls being in Fianna Fáil headquarters as the 1989 election results came in and the previously unthinkable became suddenly thinkable.

Outgoing Taoiseach Charlie Haughey had firmly ruled out coalition but, writing down every possible combination of parties and/or independents that added-up to a majority, the then-party accountant Seán Fleming realised “If those are the numbers, any of (these combinations) is possible”. Ultimately, the price of power for Fianna Fáil was abandoning its core principle and going into coalition, and going into coalition with the hated Progressive Democrats.

Terms and conditions apply to all promises and you’d want to be very naïve indeed to trust that any party will – post election – rule out a deal if the numbers add up.

79 seats. Everything else is just marketing.

Listen to Phillo. “Don’t believe a word.”

Originally published as an op-ed in the Evening Echo 11th February 2016

Donal O’Keeffe

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